Elf. Love Actually. Are you smiling already, filled with warm holiday feelings? Of course you are. Only a true grinch could be immune to the magic of these two films. Over the last decade since each debuted in 2003, they have carved out a space among that hallowed corner of the DVD shelf next to such venerated classics as It’s A Wonderful Life, White Christmas, and so forth. Among a number of other memorable Christmas movies that have been released since 2000 these two have definitely emerged as the clear frontrunners to become this (still very young) century’s Christmas classic.
Asking you to choose just one would be cruel, but I’m going to do it anyways, because I could talk about Christmas movies all day. And everyone’s tired of hearing my diatribes about how more people need to see The Bishop’s Wife. Commence a point-by-point comparison of the two strongest contenders for best Christmas movie of the century. Right off the bat I’m ruling the issue of story a tie because both succeed above other competitors with original conceits that don’t require Santa Claus (no offense, Santa) or an annoyingly precocious little kid to drive the narrative. In the following other points, however, they differ significantly:
A strong cast is essential to any film but a Christmas movie in particular needs to be brimming with likable and believable characters because this time of year you always want to feel like you’re spending time with the family you haven’t yet booked your flight home to see. Comparing the two movies on this point is tough. The charm of Elf is owed in large part to the comic genius of Will Ferrell, who has obviously brought the world more than one iconic character in his career. Who would make a good straight man to Buddy’s wild Christmas glee? Hm, how about Sonny Corleone? Okay sounds good. Let’s move on to Love Actually, which has just about as many famous British actors as the entire Harry Potter franchise. If you’re not melting under the combined charm of Hugh Grant and Colin Firth you’ve still got Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Bill Nighy, Martin Freeman and motherfucking Liam Neeson. And Rick Grimes confesses his awkward love to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s new wife, Kiera Knightley. It’s almost too much to handle. Studios have been trying to recreate this serendipitous casting strategy ever since.
Winner: Love Actually
Also applicable in this category: meme / gif-ability. To be a true Christmas classic, a film needs to be infinitely quotable. Both movies have lines you know by heart, but Elf seems to come up time and again. I know that one day a phone will ring and I will finally sucuumb to temptation, greeting the irritated caller with “Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?” Both movies have sharp, witty dialogue but Will Ferrell’s delivery seals the deal on this issue. As a bonus, there is not a GIF on the entire Internet that better embodies the Christmas spirit than Buddy running through those rotating doors.
3. Musical Moments
It’s not imperative that every Christmas movie be a balls-out musical like White Christmas, but to achieve icon status it helps to have a song you can throw on your Christmas playlist and jam out to all December long. Elf has a couple of musical moments and even hangs the fate of Santa’s ride on one spontaneous Central Park sing-along, but Love Actually has two songs you can’t get out of your head for weeks after you watch it. “Christmas Is All Around Us” is pure songwriting genius. The “All I Want For Christmas” number is the best ever, even though the song wasn’t even included on the U.S. version of the soundtrack. And Hugh Grant shakes it to the The Pointer Sisters. That scene is just about as emotionally moving as Judy Garland tearfully singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” in Meet Me In Saint Louis.
Winner: Love Actually
4. The Romance Factor
The holidays are a good time to be in a relationship, or to pretend to be in one in an it’s not convincing you but maybe it’ll convince your parents way. I don’t think all Christmas classics need a romantic storyline, but a good dose of cheese works during a season when we’re feeling our most sentimental. That’s explains why The Holiday exists. Think about the scene where George and Mary throw rocks at the old house in It’s A Wonderful Life. I die a little every time. So this category goes to Love Actually, without question. Not only because Zooey Deschanel is the only person on earth sexless enough to not seem weird dating a literal man-child, but it goes without say that Richard Curtis would win this one. If you don’t connect with one love story you’ll connect with another, since the movie has like a million couples get together by the end. My favorite are the naked body doubles. I would also like someone I can just chat with.
Winner: Love Actually
By watchability I mean several things: 1. you can watch it on endless repeat without getting tired of it 2. you don’t have to engage in any critical thinking, because the holidays are a time to kick back even when it comes to movie watching. Check and check for both movies. Then there’s point #3: dare I say it, it is family-friendly. When you’re sitting around drinking eggnog by the fireplace after all the presents have been unwrapped and you’ve just finished A Christmas Story, which of these two movies do you throw on next? Maybe your 12-year-old cousin thinks it’s hilarious that Colin is travelling to America with a backpack “chock-full” of condoms, but I bet your dad finds it very uncomfortable and frankly shocking that said child thinks this is so funny. When in doubt, Elf is the crowd-pleaser.
Finally, I’ll venture one last important thing: Elf is more wholly Christmas-y in terms of thematics. Buddy comes from the North Pole, not Portugal. Ed Asner Santa makes a just brief enough appearance. In terms of becoming a Christmas classic, I’d call Elf the winner on that point alone. I mean, there’s a talking narwhal. In every other respect, it’s almost too close to call. How would you decide this one? Quick, go watch both movies immediately and get back to me.