Tim Lott: We're off to see the Wizard – with ET and The Godfather

What is it about the familiarity of old movies that makes them impossible to turn off

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As Christmas looms through the snow, the cycle of Christmas movies hits the schedules once more – Home Alone, Ghostbusters, Swiss Family Robinson, The Wizard of Oz – the list is interminable, the appetite for them insatiable.

No one complains about these repeats. We welcome them as part of festival season. Like the release of Christmas singles, they are now deemed to mark the passing of the year and have little to do with enduring quality. I excitedly took my eight-year-old daughter to see It's a Wonderful Life at the cinema last year, and she pointed out, to my surprise, that it was actually quite boring. She was right. Watching it through the reflected light of her eyes, I saw the clunkiness, the sentiment and the dull dramatic lacunae all too clearly.

Other seasonal films stand the test of time better. That Andrew Lloyd Webber has watched The Sound of Music 20 times is a little excessive but not so surprising. Who, over a certain age, has not seen it at least half a dozen times? Likewise Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz.

People have a greater appetite for recycled films than for rewatching any other entertainment medium, and not only for seasonal reasons (there are few films to mark other seasons, putting aside Easter Parade in spring and Grease in the summer). The new chief executive of Marks and Spencer, Marc Bolland, says he has seen Bertolucci's Novecento (1900) 15 times, while the actor Alan Cumming claims to have seen Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman a remarkable 30 times, and continues to watch it on a monthly basis. The Tory MP Nicholas Soames is said to carry a video of Zulu around in his suitcase. He once explained to a friend: "It's in case I get stuck somewhere for the weekend where they don't have it."

It looks as though most film obsessives are men, and I would venture the gentle suggestion that getting hung up on one film or other is indeed more a male than a female obsession, just as, when I was growing up, pop music was more a male than a female concern. This isn't to say that there aren't many women who have passionate relationships with certain films. The actress Cathy Tyson has apparently watched Ryan's Daughter eight times. But on the whole, from my informal observations participating and listening to conversations at parties and social gatherings over the years, the people who tend to talk most passionately about the virtues and emotional power of a particular historic film – as opposed to a current release, which is a more cross-gender experience – are men. All the people I know who have large DVD film libraries are men, and all those who make lists of their favourite films are men.

My wife, Rachael, has watched A Star is Born six times, but it was as a teenager when her parents were splitting up, and the appeal is very time-specific. The film is about the collapse of a relationship. She doesn't watch it any more. The actress Brenda Fricker, meanwhile, watched Jailhouse Rock six times – again, when she was a teenager and she was "discovering sex".

I would fit both these films into the "therapeutic" category, which is one of the reasons we keep returning to particular films: they help to put in a box with reflecting walls our chaotic or untamed emotions. The screen versions of Pride and Prejudice are a prime example of this. But the reasons for OCD (Obsessive Cinematic Disorder) are wider and more multiplicitous than simple therapy.

Many go back to films compulsively simply because of their greatness. David Cameron says he has watched Where Eagles Dare 18 times, and views the Godfather films "endlessly", probably for no other reason than that people go to the theatre to see Hamlet time and again – because it is a work of art of great tragic scope and quality. The power of the film is such that it drags you back in again and again, even though you know practically every beat of the script.

The novelist William Boyd says he has sat through Blade Runner 15 times and Chinatown repeatedly. Films such as these seem to appeal to what you might call the Male Tragic Sense, since they are all elegantly bleak in tone. They perhaps have the same pull as The Smiths, Tom Waits or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds had for those same men as teenagers.

Other people (again, perhaps largely male) return to a film for vaguely geeky reasons. This is the crossword puzzle impulse. Films such as Memento, The Matrix, The Draughtsman's Contract or, more recently, the multilayered Inception appeal to the borderline autist to fuss over, unpicking the layers that contain the meaning or story, or which transmit the film's core "message" (which, I suspect, is often quite absent, or at least intrinsically blurred).

I feel somewhat the same about Synecdoche, New York, which I have watched three times since it was released last year. I am still no closer to working out what the damn thing is about, but maybe when I have reached the Alan Cummings level of OCD it will finally click.

There are still other rationales for film obsessives. For instance, the feeling that you having an identity or sense of place affirmed. I have a friend who is obsessed with Stand by Me; its main theme is adolescent coming of age and lost innocence. For my own part, I have watched Terence Davies's The Long Day Closes repeatedly because, likewise, it takes me back to the world of growing up.

This nostalgic impulse must be a strong one. Perhaps that is why Billy Elliot appeals so strongly to John Prescott, who has seen it six times. It is about a northern working-class boy overcoming the odds to become successful in the face of mockery and scepticism (although, disappointingly, Prescott didn't go on to be a ballet dancer in a feather tutu).

Watching films repeatedly is also for the pleasures of familiarity. Anticipation adds to the enjoyment, rather in the way a child will watch an episode of a cartoon over and over without ever getting bored. This is to examine Obsessive Cinematic Disorder from the inside. Looked at from the outside, it provides a reliable perspective on a personality. If I ask someone what film they compulsively watch, inevitably, if unfairly, I form a judgement on them. It is fortunate, probably, that my wife did not tell me her all-time favourite was Awakenings until the romance was too far gone to retreat.

The Prime Minister's affection for Where Eagles Dare would cast him as more, rather than less, of a prat. But it could have been worse, I suppose (Flashdance... Ghost). Likewise, if someone tells me that their favourite film is Jules et Jim I have them down as an irremediable pseud from the off. The Shawshank Redemption? Repressed homosexual. Bette Davis in Dark Victory? Actual homosexual. ET? Retarded development. Anything with Robin Williams in? Ditto. Gone with the Wind? Woman. Any comedy whatsoever? Bit shallow.

Such are my prejudices. But each has their own compulsive film for their own reasons. And if you don't have one yet, and are lost for conversation when the topic comes up, can I make a suggestion? Groundhog Day. It is screened this Christmas and it's about an event that just repeats over and over again, endlessly, monotonously – until the protagonist finally finds something worthwhile to do with his life.

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