This week marks the 10-year anniversary of both Elf and Love Actually. That means you've spent ten consecutive holiday seasons finding these movies on cable and deciding, well, why wouldn't you tune in?
We decided to honor the legacies of these two holiday greats by engaging in a friendly debate. Since we love both movies too much to disparage one over the other, we decided to make it more specific: while they are both fun and delightful movies, which is the better Christmas movie? Which one makes the best case for itself as a holiday-specific classic?
Don't get me wrong. I adore Love Actually. I will watch it any time it's on, starting from any part of the movie. But that's just the thing: while I could ostensibly watch Love Actually in July without feeling awkward about the fact that I am being utterly unseasonable, I can only watch Elf at Christmastime. Hence, for this and other reasons, Elf, the story of Buddy and human raised by elves who ventures to New York to find his dad, is the more perfect Christmas movie.
Elf is, in part, such a great Christmas movie because of how indebted it is to other Christmas movies. It's a wonderful mashup of tropes you know and love from the season. First and foremost, there's the use of Rankin/Bass style animation, a lovely ode to the classic Rudolph and Frosty TV specials. But even as the movie leaves the North Pole behind and becomes more about the sight gags involving Will Ferrell in an oversized elf costume in New York City, allusions continue to pop up. Buddy ends up working (and sleeping) at a Gimbels, a nod to the most famous movie about a magical New York City department store, Miracle on 34th Street. In fact, the exterior of Gimbels in the movie was Herald Square's Macy's, the setting of Miracle on 34th Street, since Gimbels itself had long gone out of business by the time the movie was released. The James Caan character—Buddy's biological dad—is the Scrooge and/or Grinch character who needs to be taught about kindness on the holiday. And! It's a stretch, but you could even say Zooey Deschanel's singing makes the whole thing a musical a la White Christmas. (Remember, this is blonde Zooey Deschanel, before you had any preconceived notions about Zooey Deschanel.)
All these connections to the lore of Christmas movies get at the heart of what makes Elf such a good Christmas movie: it's all about nostalgia. Sure, the movie features Will Ferrell in a distinctly Will Ferrell character—an out-of-place man-child who has a tendency to burp—but even the casting is nostalgic. Beloved TV stars of yore are the denizens of the North Pole. Bob Newhart plays Buddy's adoptive elf dad. Ed Asner is Santa. You got that? Lou Grant is Santa!
Aside from the obvious fact that Elf is really only about Christmas, the reason you can't watch it any other time of year is because it just makes you want to watch all your other favorite Christmas movies. It's a season built on nostalgia. Elf just absorbed all of it and spit it out in one delightful package.
— Esther Zuckerman
Gimbels is gone, Elf. Long gone. You're Gimbels!
There is no doubt that Elf has Christmas coming out of its pointy little ears (does Buddy have pointy ears, or are those just the elves in Lord of the Rings?). Christmas carols and Christmas villages and Christmas snow and actual Santa Claus. It's a very specific holiday movie for a very specific holiday. A holiday that I treasure. But you know what Love Actually has coming out of its ears? Love. Love, love, love. Everywhere you look. There's a universality to that love that, when combined with all the holiday trappings, manages to make Christmastime in London a holiday for everybody. Richard Curtis's sprawling romantic comedy doesn't specifically mention non-Christian holidays, but the way his characters celebrate the holidays in their own varied ways makes for a much more inclusive kind of Christmas classic.
Maybe you're not really into the hyper-commercialization of Christmas? Colin Firth is enjoying the holiday at a lake house, trying to write his novel, and falling in love with his cleaning lady, far from any sales-based Christmas cheer. Or maybe you're super into the hyper-commercialization of Christmas? There's a whole scene where Mr. Bean tries to gift-wrap a present for Alan Rickman! Maybe Christmas, for you, is a way to commemorate another year gone by? Bill Nighy is here for you, as he tries to record a #1 Christmas single so he can end the year on top! Or Christmas could be a time to tell uncomfortable but deeply-felt truths about your best friend's new wife, via an elaborately timed system of cue cards and recorded music? Love Actually is here for you, especially.
Plus, and this doesn't necessarily make it a better Christmas movie, but only one of these movies features Emma Thompson delivering a devastatingly beautiful breakdown scene to a Joni Mitchell song, and that's basically all I want for Christmas every year.
Ultimately, Love Actually is the better Christmas movie because it's the movie that is less about the trappings and iconography of Christmas and more about the people you spend the holiday with. Is that a hokey message? Perhaps. Christmas is a hokey holiday. Made all the more hokey (and thus, better), for ten years and counting, by Love Actually.