Why 2003 Is the Shining Star of Christmas Cinema

Fifteen years ago, audiences were treated to a trio of new films that would go on to become modern holiday classics and cement 2003 as a landmark year for Christmas movies.

by | December 19, 2018 | Comments

New Line Cinema, Universal Pictures, Dimension Films courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by New Line Cinema, Universal Pictures, Dimension Films courtesy Everett Collection)

In the month of November 2003, the world was treated to three instant Christmas classics in Elf, Love Actually, and Bad Santa, and in the 15 years since, we’ve never again reached that level of holiday film perfection. What did these three movies do that made them into Christmas legends and marked 2003 as a Christmas movie season to remember? We looked into it and came up with some answers.

1. They Turned Christmas on Its Head and Started Some Trends

Dimension Films courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Dimension Films courtesy Everett Collection)

At a time when holiday movies were skewing younger, simpler, and more outlandish, these three films went against the trend of saccharine, family-centric entertainment and told compelling stories with complex characters in non-traditional situations. 

Bad Santa took the iconic character of Santa Claus (and the slightly less iconic character of the Mall Santa), and transformed him into a hard-drinking, sex-addicted criminal with seedy friends and morals looser than his big red suit. Miracle on 34th Street this is not. With a strict R rating, this was not a movie for kids, but Bad Santa was never about appealing to families, and by playing into its raunchiness, it created a whole new style of holiday film.

Since then, this grown-up Christmas trope has been channeled in recent movies like Office Christmas Party, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, and The Night Before, but none have mastered it quite like Bad Santa.

In a similar vein, what Bad Santa did for grit, Love Actually did for romance. By crafting an ensemble romantic comedy around a holiday, Love Actually shockingly created a whole subgenre, with recent films New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day all trying to recapture what Love Actually created.

Love Actually also brought about a surge in Christmas romantic comedies that is still felt to this day. Films like A Christmas Prince, The Princess Switch, and whatever other movie came out on Netflix while you were reading this can thank Love Actually for turning the Christmas season into the season of love.

At the same time, Elf may appear like a simple holiday movie for children, but its humor and irreverent take on the holiday season is more than suitable for all ages. It may borrow from many classic holiday film tropes, but it is first and foremost a comedy. It’s heartwarming and festive, but also so clever and genuinely hilarious that it transcends typical holiday family fare and becomes something every adult — not just parents of young children — can enjoy watching.

2. They Launched the Careers of Some Huge Stars

New Line Cinema
(Photo by New Line Cinema)

A large part of what makes Bad Santa, Love Actually, and Elf so great is the acting; could anyone else have pulled off Papa Elf, or danced as charmingly as Hugh Grant, or grumbled and belched his way through Bad Santa as convincingly as Billy Bob Thornton? But beyond their established stars, each film managed to find some Christmas magic in relatively unknown actors who would go on to bigger and better things.

Thornton had already been nominated for three Oscars (and won one, for the screenplay of Sling Blade) when he starred in Bad Santa, but one of his co-stars would go on to become a thrice-nominated Oscar darling as well. Playing the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role of prostitute Opal, Octavia Spencer’s few lines didn’t lead to instant recognition, but they did show off the acting chops that would lead to turns in The HelpHidden Figures, and The Shape of Water, all three of which earned her Best Supporting Actress nominations from the Academy, and the first of which resulted in a win.

Love Actually also served as an inflection point for some of its actors, with established movie stars, up-and-comers, and others waiting to break through. Nowhere is this breakthrough more apparent than in the love triangle between Juliet, Peter, and Mark — or as we now know them, Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Andrew Lincoln.

Universal Pictures
(Photo by Universal Pictures)

In 2003, Keira Knightley was in the midst of a moment. Fresh off Bend It Like Beckham and the first installment in billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Knightley came to the 2003 holiday season on a wave of fame and carried her success both into Love Actually and beyond. Her scene partners haven’t fallen far behind, though.

Playing the lovestruck Mark, Lincoln may not resemble the post-apocalyptic sheriff from The Walking Dead that would turn him into a worldwide celebrity, and few might have predicted that the young actor playing Juliet’s husband, a then relatively unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor, would go on to receive an Oscar nomination for his lead role in the Best Picture-winning 12 Years A Slave.

As for Elf, you might think that it was obviously going to be a hit with comedy legend Will Ferrell and the adorkable Zooey Deschanel as its leads, but it was an adventurous pairing at the time. Ferrell had just finished a legacy-making run on Saturday Night Live, and he had appeared in small roles in just over a dozen films, but it was still unknown whether he could lead a movie. The success of Elf led Ferrell to a career in comedy blockbusters like Anchorman, Step Brothers, The Other Guys, Daddy’s Home, and many more. As for Deschanel, she would go on to star in romantic comedies like 500 Days of Summer, Yes Man, and the hit sitcom New Girl. Not bad for a lowly mall elf.

3. They’re Still Fan Favorites, and We Can Prove It

New Line Cinema
(Photo by New Line Cinema)

Despite coming out 15 years ago, these three movies are already holiday staples, and there is actual evidence to back that up.

A year ago, FandangoNOW users were asked to vote for the best Christmas movie of the 21st century — unsurprisingly, Elf  was the fan favorite, followed by The Polar ExpressLove Actually in the third spot, and Bad Santa finishing fifth. More recently, FandangoNOW also asked its millennial users to rank which movies they plan on streaming this holiday season, and this time Elf slipped to second-most popular, while Love Actually came in eighth and Bad Santa finished in the 15th spot. A similar study of Roku users’ searches from the 2017 holiday season shows Elf as the most searched-for Christmas movie, and Love Actually as the ninth most sought after.

Plus, even the Tomatometer agrees! In Rotten Tomatoes’ recent list of The 50 Best Christmas Movies of All Time, Elf, Love Actually, and Bad Santa all made the cut.

4. They Were All Box Office Hits

Universal Pictures
(Photo by Universal Pictures)

You’d think there’s only room for so many Christmas movies in one month, but that wasn’t the case in 2003. Despite all three films being released within three weeks of each other, Elf, Love Actually, and Bad Santa were surprise hits. In fact, Elf and Love Actually both raked in more than $200 million dollars worldwide. And they opened on the same weekend!

Elf opened at #2 in the box office with a very healthy $31 million in its first weekend, and it didn’t leave the Top 10 until after the new year. Over the course of its run, it made more than $170 million in the U.S. and nearly $50 million abroad.

Love Actually was also a Top 10 film in America for five consecutive weeks, but it did most of its heavy lifting overseas. The British production held the top spot in the U.K. box office for its first four weeks in release and spent four more weeks as a Top 5 film there, earning more than $60 million during its British run.

Even the R-rated Bad Santa made more than $75 million over its run, which, coupled with a production budget of only $23 million, was more than enough to convince a studio to take a chance on Bad Santa 2… but let’s not talk about that.

In total, these three holiday classics made over $540,000,000 worldwide during one holiday season. So, what was it that made these three films so financially successful, popular, and impactful?

Elf, Love Actually, and Bad Santa each appealed to an audience that hadn’t been totally captured in a holiday film. Whether it was the romance of Love Actually, the humor and heart of Elf, or the raunchiness of Bad Santa, each offered a unique perspective on the holiday and created a following that is now arguably stronger than ever.

Also, these are simply three elfin’ good movies.

Elf and Love Actually were released on November 7, 2003. Bad Santa was released on November 26, 2003.

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