Why 2003 Was the Last Great Year For Christmas (Movies)

Every year brings new cinematic presents to be placed under the tree, but we examine why the gifts of this Christmas Past shined brighter.

The other day I was watching a Christmas movie, as one is wont to do during the precious weeks of advent calendars and (finally) appropriate holiday carol listening (or early if you’re reading this prior to Thanksgiving). During the film, the original A Miracle on 34th Street, I got into the trite idea of thinking, “Why don’t they make them like this anymore?” Of course after a minute, I realized that’s simply not true. Nearly every year brings new Christmas movie entertainment for children, families, and even strictly grown-ups. And when we’re really lucky, the better ones will bring that warm glow that turns the year’s darkest nights into its brightest, finding even a cynical New Yorker begrudging good will toward men.

Still, I got to thinking about how few of these movies have stood the test of time as true Christmas classics; magical adventures that become part of the holiday tradition like eggnog, the Yule Log, and 24 hours of A Christmas Story. When was the last time that we were blessed with a glistening cinematic ornament to place on the tree every year after? As it turns out, we can directly pinpoint the answer to 2003–the last great year for Christmas movies.

Sixteen years later, there have been Fred Clauses and The Night Befores, another unneeded Grinch remake, and a well-meaning if lightweight tribute to George Michael’s Last Christmas, but none have been able to match that feeling of Fezziwig-like glee found in these three vastly disparate celluloid giftboxes from the Christmas some decuple years ago. So, like a late-night apparition, join us on this trip into a Christmas Past for three movies that still twinkle on the hearth for all audiences.

Christmas Movies - Elf (2003)

Elf

Release Date: Nov. 7, 2003

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Likely pitched to studios as another The Santa Clausethis yuletide goodie was a star vehicle for Will Ferrell when he was still an unknown variable in Hollywood equations. He had seen success the same year in the fiercely naughty ensemble piece Old School where his name was hardly any bigger than Vince Vaughn’s or Luke Wilson’s, but he was still eight months away from the classiest of movie star turns in Anchorman. So, it was essentially New Line taking a small risk on Saturday Night Live’sretired MVP to open a family film.

How surprising it was for everyone then that Ferrell not only could lead a movie aimed at children, but that he could so completely understand them. Despite his penchant for appearing in countless films and sketches that require him to run naked through quads or mistake the words “San Diego” for “Large Whale’s Vagina,” there is a permanently optimistic innocence to Ferrell’s humor. Whereas many comedians find the funny from a place of cynicism or sarcasm, Ferrell’s endless string of comedies—whether he is playing a hapless sad sack or a raging 1970s misogynist—come from a place of sweetness and naïveté (or also stupidity).

read more: The Best Christmas Movies on Netflix

This allows him to far more easily transit into family fare that can elude his contemporaries, such as Old School co-star Vaughn’s 2007 wannabe Elf. Through Ferrell’s eyes, Buddy the Elf just wasn’t a caricature or parody of “elf” like tropes associated with the North Pole, but a sincerely earnest and hopeful hero who is just a little confused about the world. His wide-eyed performance gives Elf a heart 10 times bigger than any other “Adult Comedian in Kid’s Movie” cliché.

And that is because Elf is not really a kid’s movie; it’s a family film. The distinction can be small, but it is a world of difference. Elf is more than a 90-minute babysitter with a few pop culture references for the otherwise bored parents. While Elf surely includes sly ribbings at everything from the etiquette of locker room shower time to the notorious stop-motion Christmas specials from Rankin/Bass, it’s still inherently timeless in its design by director Jon Favreau. The fast-talking star and writer of Swingers proves to be just as cinematically loquacious in Elf, which depicts Santa Claus as an aging blue-collar stiff who has had it about up to here with the lack of Christmas spirit in his old age.

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Yet at the same time, the movie never talks down the season or the importance of holiday cheer to its audience or characters; Buddy’s long lost father Walter (James Caan) being on the naughty list is an indescribable failing for the man to both Buddy and the viewer, and his redemption is just as important as the image of a bunch of New Yorkers being reluctantly coaxed into a singing of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

Ultimately, the movie is just fun. It’s vibrant upbeat tone juxtaposed with a gray (though still big budget friendly) Manhattan offers more than enough environmental chuckles, as does its supporting cast, including stalwarts like Caan, Ed Asner, Bob Newhart, Mary Steenburgen, Andy Richter, and Amy Sedaris. It even sports new outstanding talent that would only rise in the coming years, such as blonde(!) Zooey Deschanel as Buddy’s love interest and an enticing caroler before New Girl’s Jess made her a star.

Also retroactively brilliant is seeing Peter Dinklage (in the same year as his outstanding turn in The Station Agent) steal the entire movie as Miles Finch, a quick-tempered children’s author who Buddy mistakes for an elf. It is easy to see why he would eventually be on HBO’s radar to play the endlessly nuanced and entertaining Tyrion Lannister.

Elf may have been designed as a star vehicle for an actor still testing his Hollywood image, but it has endured as a sled-based vehicle fueled on enchantment and wit as it travels down the seven levels of the Candy Cane Forest, through the Sea of Swirly Twirly Gum Drops, and then through the Lincoln Tunnel.

Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox in Bad Santa

Bad Santa

Release Date: November 26, 2003

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And on the complete reverse end of the spectrum for Christmastime laughs is Bad Santa. Directed by the guy behind Ghost World and the future writers of I Love You Phillip Morris, this was not intended to be the most feel-good movie of the year. That’s why it still was one of them. The antithesis of all the emotions in ElfBad Santa is a deceivingly mean-spirited approach to one of the big screen’s most infamous grinches. Played with the most delicate combination of self-pity and egregiously outgoing misanthropy, Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie is more than a Bad Santa Claus…he’s a horrible human being in every conceivable way.

The concept of a Bad Santa is not necessarily a new one. It always receives chuckles whether from A Christmas Story or Home Alone; the sight of a mall Santa not putting much effort into the job has hilarity that’s self-evident. But Thornton may be one for the ages, because he gets a whole movie to take it to an extreme worth 50 lumps of coal, all of which likely would smell better than his alcohol-drenched breath.

A boozer, a probable drug addict, a jeeringly loud racist, and a sometime-criminal, there is nothing appealing about this Santa at first glance. That is why his redemption story, told with maximum snark, becomes so poignant. Filmed from a mostly apathetic eye that never more than glides behind its dolly, Bad Santa is really the story of Willie and “the Kid” (Brett Kelly) who saves him. However, this is where the schmaltz ends.

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The reason the kid’s called the Kid is because Willie barely bothers to learn his real name. Their entire relationship is founded on Willie wanting to rob him when he hears that his father is in prison (“Is Granny spry?” Willie asks while slipping on the ski mask). Their interaction never reaches a genuinely tender moment, because the kid is played almost as pathetic as this harmless drunk. Overweight, ceaselessly spaced out, and generally a product of low attention from his absent father and an even lower dimmed bulb in his head, this child would appear to be a lost cause. That makes Willie deciding to nut up and save him all the better. Sure, it ultimately ends with Willie taking two in the back from cops in front of screaming children while delivering a blood-soaked toy to the Kid, but it is the thought that counts!

This movie never loses sight of what it really is about: the world’s absolutely worst Santa Claus. Whether it is cursing out children with his beard off while eating in the cafeteria, pissing his pants while falling asleep on the job, or making sure any lady that will join him in the changing room “won’t shit right for a week,” this guy is about as helpful to Santa’s image as Megyn Kelly on a tirade, and we love him for it.

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read more: The Strangest and Most Disturbing Santa Claus Movie

Aided by sterling supporting work from late greats of Bernie Mac and John Ritter, as well as an especially acidic performance from Tony Cox as Marcus, “Santa’s Little Helper,” this is one that will allow the more wry holiday revelers a much-deserved smirk.

Christmas Movies - Love Actually (2003)

Love Actually

Release Date: November 7, 2003

What hasn’t been said about Love Actually? Marketed originally as a big ensemble romantic comedy from across the pond, many Americans had yet to recognize Richard Curtis’ name (they still don’t) or that this rom-com would grow into required December viewing. Sure, Love Actually’s larger-than-life love story has developed its critics for being…a larger-than-life love story. But ignore those Scrooges, because this enchanting winter fairy tale for adults still lives up to the hype it has cultivated over a decade.

Cast to the hilt with more British thespian talent than a Harry Potter two-parter, Love Actually is practically obscene for its star-studded bravado. Featuring an ensemble that includes Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln, Martin Freeman, Laura Linney, and a movie-stealing Bill Nighy, among many others, this picture is almost too big to stuff under the tree.

That is probably why all the Hollywood attempts to copy Curtis’ near-trademarked “schmaltz” have failed utterly (ahem, He’s Just Not That Into You, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve). Indeed, underneath this silky wrapping is a film that’s quite grown-up in its mentality if not in its sentiment.

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Proving not all love stories are candy cane sweet, Lincoln’s Mark is in love with his best friend’s wife—understandable when she’s Keira Knightley—and essentially has lost his “love story” before it’s begun. Meanwhile, Daniel (Neeson) is undergoing the other part of life’s cycle that most rom-coms are too scared to touch: death. And it’s not only the death of a loved one, but of his still young wife whose cancerous departure leaves him alone to raise a stepson he initially can barely communicate with.

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Switching gears again brings about the dry and sweet, if intimacy-free chemistry between Rickman and Thompson (yes, yes, it’s Snape and Trelawny) that must come crashing down when he cheats on her with his secretary. Their marriage is not only loveless, it is lifeless and ends just waiting for her to pull the plug. Then, of course, is the one everybody remembers, Sarah (Linney), the woman whose storybook romance with a co-worker is intentionally sabotaged when she repeatedly chooses to help her always-in-need brother over turning her phone off for one night.

These less-than-happy tastes of reality are few and far between all the caramel treats this movie leaves out for the proverbial St. Nick, but it makes them all the sweeter when doses of reality are splashed in the audience’s face along with the milk. It’s also a lesson the Hollywood imitators never learned. So let Colin (Kris Marshall) shag every easy woman in America, which is apparently all of them; let the prime minister (Grant) shatter decades of geopolitical reality and diplomacy with the U.S. in its worst personification of a Bush/Clinton hybrid played by (who else?) Billy Bob Thornton, all in the name of love for his secretary (Martine McCutcheon); and let an aging would-be Mick Jagger type named Billy Mack (Nighy) impossibly win the prestigious “Christmas Number One” in Britain against One Direction’s forebearers! They’ve earned it, and more importantly, we earned it.

This is especially true in the two subplots that serve as the bow and ribbon around the whole story: Firth’s Jamie and Lucia Moniz’s Aurelia meeting cute and learning to love each other despite not speaking the same language, and Neeson’s stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) winning the heart of a fellow 10-year-old who’s so cool that she can stop the entire show dead for a Mariah Carey musical extravaganza. The latter even lends itself to a big faux-Hollywood Graduate homage without the downbeat denouement. This is Christmas, after all.

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And that’s the movie’s biggest charm. Despite featuring swearing, porn stars, hedonistic rockers, and more subplots than there are verses in “Twelve Days of Christmas,” it’s still a movie that appeals to the jaded cynics and the true believers that listen for sleigh bells in the snow; both those who love Elf or the ones that prefer a little Bad Santa can enjoy this Christmas Eve feast.

Sometimes crude, but never once crass, the ever-endearing Love Actually proves that a time for families and undergarments hanging on chimneys is also a period of romance and its own type of special, icy magic. It is the rare feat of having its red-and-green cake and eating it too. A decade later, it is still letting those good feelings flow to any viewer that has heeded the Ghost of Christmas Future’s warning.

These are three incredibly unique, disparate, and memorable Christmas movies that work just as well in 2015 as they did upon their release in 2003. They each have developed unwavering followings by the changing of the seasons and become increasingly entrenched as Christmas classics. Have there been any better since their release? Let us know what you think in the Comment Section below!

This article was first published on Dec. 24, 2013.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.